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Autumn in this part of the country, long, leisurely, lingering—there is simply no place on earth nicer to be than in this part of the Midwest from late September until mid-November. More than three months of a glorious autumn means we also have about the same period of time for a spring that just doesn’t want to let go of winter. Which is another way of saying that spring around here doesn’t loosen its bone-chilling grip until early June finally, blessedly, steps in and turns up the heat. Spring hangs on like Larry King. Which is where we are now. And it’s deceptive. Daffodils are a-bud. Grass greens. The day, from inside, looks sunny, frolic-worthy. Step outside, though, and you’re hit with that raw, damp chill that’s going to be with us until at least the Feast of St. Barnabas. To top it all off, you’ve been bullet-proof all through the Tet Offensive of flu season. And now, now when, you’re thinking you are going to escape, someone’s poured Elmer’s into your sinuses. You’re sluggish, worn down, and haven’t any appetite more substantial than a peckish five-year-old.
This is the time for congee.
It’s always been surprising to us, given the nearly incessant blather about the C-word food (we refuse to use the idiotic phrase “Comfort Food”) that congee hasn’t become more popular. Hot, simple; the texture alone, a silky, opalescent that’s somewhere just north of a soup but not quite up to the compass point of a stew, congee is what you want when you don’t want anything else.
Congee is, at its most basic, a kind of rice porridge. It sounds simple. Just make rice, using much, much more water than usual, and cook it until the grains dissolve into a thick gruel. The subtleties of congee, though, are intricate. Every rice-eating region of China has its variations; it’s different too, from kitchen to kitchen. (Other rice-eating cultures have their own take on congee, incidentally. It’s called okayu in Japanese. “Congee” is a word borrowed from Tamil. It’s called, properly, zhou in Mandarin, jook in Cantonese.) Some congee versions are probably not high on your list of lip-smackin’ homestyle eats, like those with frog meat or chitterlings. Here’s the thing, though, with congee: you can add almost anything. (Well, probably not Provel. But a lot of things.)
Many local Chinese restaurants offer congee. Among the very best can be found at Wonton King, in U City. They have several kinds. The one with preserved eggs and dried, shredded pork is a classic, traditional variety. The one with pork liver, kidney, and meatballs is also the “real thing,” but we feel like we’ve been pushing offal too much on you recently and we don’t want you thinking we’re weird. They offer a “Hong Kong” version but it is not entirely authentic. They do not use garlic oil, a staple of most Hong Kong style congee.
You are best advised to go with the House Special Congee at Wonton King. This congee (right), a big, steaming bowl of it, is studded with chunks of white fish, scallops, chewy-tender spirals of squid, and beautiful, plump shrimp. The broth has the savory smack of chicken stock; needles of fresh, pungent ginger give just a hint of piquancy that saves the dish from blandness. You’ll want to order something to complement the soupy rice. Something crunchy is nice. Aside from that, though, you don’t need anything else. Congee is just wonderful, all by itself. And spoonfuls of Wonton King’s congee are like wrapping a North Face parka around your cold soul.
In Chinese, congee is so ubiquitous it’s in several figures of speech. There’s a way of saying something’s a complete mess: Yi huo zhou—“a wok full of congee.” “Salty congee”—xian wei zhou—is colloquial for a dirty joke. As breakfast, a late night snack, congee is a fundamental element in China’s daily cuisine. It’s healthier than a lot of other stuff. Fried rice, for instance. And it’s more authentic by far than General Tso’s Chicken. It is, as well, the perfect antidote to those miserably long springs we have around here.
Wonton King 8116 Olive University City 314-567-9997 Dinner nightly, Lunch Mon-Fri, Dim Sum carts at brunch on Sat-Sun
Photos by Kevin A. Roberts